Here’s my perfect day in Italy: getting lost in a medieval village, lingering over an al fresco lunch where only Italian is spoken around me, and having an afternoon nap to digest all that fresh pasta. These are moments I associate with regions like Puglia or Calabria, far from major airports. But on a recent trip, I was surprised to find this away-from-it-all feeling in Tuscany, two hours outside Florence, in the mountainous Serchio Valley.
In this less-touristed northern corner of Tuscany, you can spend days browsing traditional markets, exploring biodynamic wineries, and learning to cook Tuscan specialties. It’s the kind of place where local knowledge goes a long way, so to find the best of the region, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of a local chef.
A friend connected me with Alessandro Manfredini, an energetic, scruffy-faced chef who is a native of the region. We met on the corner of Via Della Speranza (Street of Hope) in the heart of his home village of Barga, surrounded by pastel-colored buildings and precariously parked Vespas. At the outdoor Saturday market, crates of heirloom tomatoes, carrots with bushy greens, and zucchini with their delicate flowers still attached filled the tables.
“Typical dishes of this region,” Manfredini said, “are our spelt or farro soups, pastas with chestnuts, and anything with porcini mushrooms—we love porcini.” We gathered ingredients for a cooking class at the nearby Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Hotel, where Manfredini cooks at La Veranda restaurant and leads private classes focused on everything from fresh pasta to hearty Tuscan dishes.
While we cooked, he gushed about all his favorite places to eat, drink, shop, and picnic in his native region.
Set aside a day (and make reservations in advance) to explore Podere Còncori, a small-scale biodynamic winery. “It feels like a secret farmhouse,” Manfredini says. “I like to take a whole afternoon to walk the vineyards with the winemaker and relax over lunch.” Visitors will sample syrah and pinot noir over pasta tossed with sweet local tomatoes.
Ponte della Maddalena, nicknamed Devil’s Bridge, rises sharply over the Serchio River. Located in Borgo a Mozzano and dating back to the 11th century, this curiously shaped bridge is a scenic place to stop for photographs.
Caproni Enrico is a traditional alimentari in Barga owned by two brothers, Enrico and Augustino. “While you shop, ask for a slice of hand-cut prosciutto,” Manfredini suggests. Shelves are stocked with farro, pasta, and wine.
Get in the kitchen with chef Manfredini and learn to make fresh pasta, including pappardelle, ravioli, and tortellini at the Renaissance Tuscany il Ciocco. Classes can be customized to include a trip to the local market to gather fresh ingredients.
Located on the slopes of the Apennine Mountains, Parco dell’Orecchiella is home to a large chestnut forest and a botanical garden. “When the sun is shining, there is no better thing to do than picnic for the afternoon,” Manfredini says. “Bring along some pecorino Toscano cheese, bread, fruit, and prosciutto.”
In the heart of Barga, two family-owned restaurants stand out for Manfredini. At the traditional Trattoria L’Altana, try the housemade pastas—tagliatelle with pumpkin, pecorino, and pancetta is a standout—and soups like Garmugia Lucchese with beans and artichokes. In the upscale Ristorante Sciacciaguia (the name means “to throw troubles away”) don’t miss the spelt cake with fonduta and red onion jam.
In general, keep an eye out for regional specialties, including Biadina Lucchese (a traditional liqueur, which is consumed with pine nuts), vin brulé (mulled wine with cinnamon, orange zest, and cloves, a winter favorite), local soups including Frantoiana, and dishes with chestnuts (castagne).
Manfredini's favorite bakery in Barga is Pasticceria Lucchesi. “I love to stand at the bar for my coffee and watch the pastries come out of the oven,” he says. Favorite pastries include cornetto, delicate fruit tarts, or any pastry with chestnuts.
A traditional market—with fresh produce, local crafts, and antiques—is held on Thursdays in the town of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana (a 15-minute drive from Barga). A visit to this medieval town wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Il Vecchio Mulino da Andrea, a tiny bar and restaurant serving Tuscan snacks, including local pecorino cheese, savory farro cakes, and salami.